Seventy years ago, when leaders like James Conant were pushing for a meritocratic education system, they argued that narrow and entrenched privilege was the enemy of prosperity. Why? Because it gave the best opportunities to unexceptional rich WASPs while leaving America's best human capital off the table. Empowering such a small slice of the population also limited the growth of a strong middle and upper middle class.
The changes that Conant and others ushered in led to a huge rise in college admission for Catholics and Jews, as well as smart kids from isolated and rural communities. Later, falling barriers for young women brought an even greater avalanche of new human capital into the economy. And a diversity push over the past two decades has brought more people of color into the circle of opportunity. The result, in general terms, has been a mass affluence the likes of which no nation in the world has ever seen.
Yet America remains far, far away from tapping all its human capital and realizing the benefits of having its populace operating at full potential. That is a key point of "All-In Nation," a new study by PolicyLink and the Center for American Progress. What's holding us back, in large part, is deep and persistent racial stratification and segregation. A large slice of our people are sidelined from meaningful opportunity.
Progressives often focus on how marginalization is bad for those who are marginalized. But "All-In Nation" argues -- as Conant did -- that the entire country pays a price, and that price will rise steeply in coming years:
if the racial disparities plaguing the country today hold constant as the United States becomes majority people of color, it will mean lower growth for our nation, lower wages for our people, as well as a lower standard of living. In short, we simply cannot maintain the American way of life we all believe in and cherish while at the same time leaving half the country behind. That is why we all have a stake in an economy that works better for everyone.
If racial and ethnic di"erences were eliminated, the average total personal income in 2011 would have been 8.1 percent higher; our gross domestic product would have been at least $1.2 trillion higher; 13 million people would have been lifted out of poverty; federal, state, and local tax revenue would have increased by $192 billion; and the long-run deficit in Social Security would be reduced by more than 10 percent.